Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Relevant books I've been reading:

So, I'm working, going to school, and spending my time in between on transit. I just thought I'd mention a few of the books I've got going, and how they've related to Higher Frequency and my interest in urban planning and transportation infrastructure in general.

The first is "The Clock of the Long Now", by Stewart Brand. The original concept is simple: Build a clock and library to last at least through the next ice age, and contain knowledge in a format that will continue to be readable for tens of thousands of years. The clock would tick once a day, and go through full bells something like every millennium. Together, these would help humans consider thinking in longer terms - where we currently plan for weeks or years, we might realize it's more appropriate to plan in hundreds of years.
This gets really important for big projects, because if you take into account the ecological impact of your planning over decades or hundreds of years, you lean toward sustainable solutions. That's where using electric rail to connect communities becomes much more viable than cars or buses - when viewed in 100 year terms, for instance, a subway system can easily become the best bang for your buck.

I've been working on two books by Jane Jacobs, one started before and one after she passed away a few weeks ago. The first is her famous "The Death and Life of Great American Cities", describing how planning choices can make or break neighborhoods, and how to develop them to meet their own needs rather than to be subservient to, say, a large business. Renton is an example of a community reliant on a large employer (Boeing). Because the community relies on Boeing for much of their political power, if that employer were to leave, she argues that they would have to build much of that power again from scratch. My point here is that if Boeing left Renton, but Renton were well connected to other communities with permanent transit, the city would redevelop much more quickly. This would be due not only to accessibility of employment in neighboring communities, but also to newly available real estate near an existing transit hub.
The second, which I've just started, is "The Economy of Cities". So far, this has been about agriculture's development. The book was written in 1969, and suggests what I was taught in school - that cities developed before agriculture, and that most new technology is developed in dense areas and distributed to rural and suburban zones. I'm still quite early on in the book.

The newest addition to my reading list is Robert Cervero's "The Transit Metropolis", case studies of transit systems in several different types of city layouts and on several continents. I'm not sure I like his approach - he seems to address city development as linear, specifically avoiding discussing how a transit system can change that course, but only how a transit system can address the existing city layout. I'm not sure if that's just his starting point, or if it's going to be prevalent throughout.

I've got Kunstler's "The Geography of Nowhere" and a couple of other books on sprawl by Peter Calthorpe waiting in the wings for when I get through all of this. Hopefully I'm internalizing what I learn well enough to have better opinions of local developments.

8 Comments:

At 9:57 PM, Anonymous A Transportation Enthusiast said...

So, let's see, nearly three months ago I asked you to clarify your position on Avidor's well-known opinions about PRT, and you ignored me. Apparently you were "too busy" to respond. (See my comments on the March 7 blog entry).

Are you still too busy? Apparently not, since you seem to be doing a lot of reading these days. Why don't you clarify your position on Avidor's extreme views? You seem to support Avidor's assertion that transit innovation is nothing but a "stalking horse" to derail transit projects. Is this really how you feel? Do you really believe that there is nothing left to be invented in the world of transit?

Are you going to clarify your position, or are we to assume that you agree with Avidor, that PRT is nothing but a worldwide conspiracy? Are you evading the question, Mr. Schiendelman?

 
At 9:12 AM, Blogger Ben Schiendelman said...

Nice to see that you're still reading.

I wouldn't call PRT a "worldwide conspiracy". I don't think it's a good approach to transit, though, for a number of reasons.

First, because each vehicle is typically not shared, it doesn't have any of the positive social aspects of mass transit. It can foster the same isolationism that cars can now.

Second, because it uses smaller, more numerous vehicles, it's fundamentally lower capacity than a mass transit system with the same size of guideway - meaning that for the same population densities, it would have to be physically larger, and more expensive in fixed costs. I suspect that because each vehicle would require a similar amount of maintenance (within an order of magnitude) to a higher capacity vehicle, but because there would be more than an order of magnitude more vehicles, maintenance costs would be significantly higher for the same number of people moved.

PRT would also likely be more expensive for the same task because it doesn't use standards that many vehicle manufacturers have existing equipment and processes to build for. Most subway and LRT systems can use equipment from competing vendors, keeping costs down and options open.

I don't want to speak for Avidor, but personally, I think that proponents of PRT make unstated assumptions about the political or business atmosphere in which their system would be competitive. I also think that they prefer PRT largely because it does allow for personal isolation. Because they tend not to be transit users or likely transit users, I think that they're trying to design a system for people who don't share the same personal preferences they do - and that's the primary reason that it fails.

 
At 9:22 AM, Blogger Ben Schiendelman said...

That's an interesting disconnect on being busy and reading. My time on transit protects my ability to read even when I have no time for anything else.

 
At 10:43 AM, Anonymous A Transportation Enthusiast said...

To respond to each point individually:

"I wouldn't call PRT a "worldwide conspiracy". I don't think it's a good approach to transit, though..."

But those are two vastly different views. Saying you "don't think it's a good approach" is a reasonable view that spurs debate. OTOH, calling it a "worldwide conspiracy" is akin to fear mongering -- it shifts the debate from the reasonable to the ridiculous, as we saw on the Seattle forums several weeks ago.

People like Ken Avidor and "Soul Not Sold..." are not interested in reasoned debate. They've made up their mind and they will stop at nothing to coerce their views on others. Just because you happen to agree with them doesn't mean you should endorse their tactics. In doing so, you undermine your own credibility.

"First, because each vehicle is typically not shared, it doesn't have any of the positive social aspects of mass transit"

Social aspects are a secondary goal. The primary goals of public transport are to move people around, and in some cases to relieve the burden of ever increasing auto traffic. Transit systems should be judged primarily on efficiency, cost, and ridership. If there is a social benefit, that's nice, but a transit mode should be rejected based solely on a perceived lack of social benefit.

"because it uses smaller, more numerous vehicles, it's fundamentally lower capacity than a mass transit system with the same size of guideway"

This is a fallacy. PRT systems have been engineered and tested with capacities in the same ballpark as grade-separated light rail. Other systems have been engineered for even higher capacities than rail, but haven't been promoted as such because of the political heat of short headway designs. Short headways (less than 1 second) are very controversial, but there's no indication they wouldn't be extremely safe in a well-engineered system. I've not seen one shred of evidence that short headways are inherently unsafe.

"PRT would also likely be more expensive for the same task..."

There are significant unknowns regarding PRT cost, and a certain amount of skepticism is certainly warranted. But there's always cost uncertainty when dealing with large systems such as this. Light rail is certainly not immune to cost escalations. But, there is plenty of evidence that PRT can be viable economically, and only anecdotal evidence that it will fail economically. Fact is, until a real system is built, most of these questions will never be answered.

The problem is, people like Ken Avidor are so viciously against PRT that even discussion of PRT, even in a small starter application, causes a political firestorm. So PRT forever remains an unknown, while cities struggle under the weight of unused trains and overflowing highways.

"I also think that they prefer PRT largely because it does allow for personal isolation."

Do you really claim to know the motives of PRT proponents? The personal isolation thing is way overblown. I've read a huge amount of PRT literature, and isolation is barely mentioned. It's a side effect of PRT, not a goal.

People like Avidor have made personal isolation an issue, by implying that PRT promoters want to dissuade people from riding together. Like most of what Avidor says, it's a gross misrepresentation.

"I think that they're trying to design a system for people who don't share the same personal preferences they do..."

But isn't that the point, to attract more people to transit? It's well known that a vast majority will choose automobiles over transit when they have a choice. Is it somehow wrong for designers to provide a public transit solution that will attract some of those 98% of automobile users as well as the 2% of transit users? It's clear that those 98% will not choose trains and buses unless there is an extreme reason to do so: very bad traffic and/or very high fuel prices.

What is wrong with improving transit service so that it can compete with automobiles even without those extenuating circumstances?

 
At 11:42 AM, Blogger Ben Schiendelman said...

PRT systems have been tested with capacities in the same ballpark as grade separated light rail? Where?

Headways less than one second? I haven't seen anything operating with headways under 30 seconds, but I could be mistaken.

Your last point, on choice, is only valid if all else is equal. It's not "well known" that a "vast majority" will choose cars over transit. In places where subsidization is closer to equal, like Japan, people choose transit because it is much cheaper.

 
At 12:26 PM, Anonymous A Transportation Enthusiast said...

Japanese CVS and German Cabintaxi were both tested as low as 1-second headway. Japanese CVS was rejected by regulators who were wary of the low headways, even though CVS was fully tested. At the time, the Japanese regulators were swayed by some recent rail accidents that had a large number of fatailties -- they were not about to approve low headways in that environment.

Cabintaxi was extensively tested and approved by the German regulatory agencies for city-wide deployment at two second headways (although it was supposedly tested as low as 1-second).

Both these systems were developed in the 1970s, when processor speeds were measured in kilohertz. There is ample evidence that half-second headways are both practical and safe today.

Today, because of the extreme political backlash against sub-second headways, systems have been promoted at 2-seconds, but this is not a technical limitation. In the case of Taxi 2000, it was engineered for 0.5 seconds but initially targeted 2 seconds to appease regulators. According to Taxi 2000 documents, regulators would be willing to accept 2 second headways initially, and were open to reconsidering lower headways once the system had more operational experience.

In the UK, the ULTra system has a test system running continuously at 2 seconds, and has received approval from regulators.

2-second headway corresponds to about 1800-2400 passengers per hour; 1-second headway is 3600-5000 passengers per hour. Half-second headways would achieve capacities anywhere from 7200 to over 10,000 passengers per hour.

The idea that PRT is inherently low capacity is a myth, promoted by people like Avidor to disparage the technology.

You also write: "In places where subsidization is closer to equal, like Japan, people choose transit because it is much cheaper."

But that's not the case here in this country. Here, the automobile is ubiquitous, and our culture it built around the convenience of personal, point-to-point travel. It is a fact that, here in the US, the vast majority choose the costs of an automobile even when cheaper transit options are available. That will not change unless (a) the automobile becomes less convenient or (b) transit becomes more convenient. We're already seeing the effects of (a) with higher gas prices and traffic, but even with $3/gal gas and really bad traffic, the effect is still very small.

PRT is the only system that attempts to close the conveniece gap with automobiles - so that people might choose transit because it's a better option, not just because it's the least crappy option.

Having said all this... I still believe it has to be proven in a real setting. But that will never happen as long as we have propagandists like Avidor spewing misinformation whenever/wherever a PRT proposal comes up.

 
At 12:40 PM, Anonymous A Transportation Enthusiast said...

No response to my last message correcting some of your misconceptions about PRT. Does this mean that you concede you were wrong about the facts of PRT?

Furthermore, What exactly is your view calling anybody who takes an open-minded position on PRT a "gadgetbahner" and "transit hater"? Do you really feel that those who are interested in innovative solutions to problems should be labelled as "wackos" and "frauds"? Is this the kind of position a supposed thinking person such as yourself wishes to promote?

When you support dogmatists like "Soul Not Sold..." and Ken Avidor, you clearly indicate that you are willing to stoop to the level of O'Reilly Report propaganda, as long as that propaganda supports your position. In other words, dogmatists are OK if they're on my side.

Are you going to distance yourself from "Soul Not Sold..." and Ken Avidor once and for all, or do you wish to be listed among the "my way or the highway" propagandists?

 
At 11:02 AM, Blogger Ben Schiendelman said...

...where are you connecting me to these people? I have opinions on PRT that I've laid out quite clearly. We have technology now that is effective, and it would be foolhardy to design a system around technology that isn't commercially available. Why would you want to design a system around such high-risk variables? Even with the monorail project, lowballing the cost of a nonstandard technology probably cost them their entire existence.

 

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